Putin’s pipe dream of Russia being a superpower

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Debates about whether Russia is a super power or only a regional one typically begin from the mistaken notion that it is secure as the latter, Sergey Shalin says; but in fact, few of Russia’s neighbors view it as a hegemonic power even on the former Soviet space let alone further afield.

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The Rosbalt commentator points out that the most widely accepted definition of “a regional power” is “a state which dominates its region economically and militarily and is recognized or even respected as a regional leader by its neighbors.” Russia may qualify on the first part but it doesn’t on the second.

That lack is typically ignored by those pressing for Russia to play a superpower role who assume that it is at least a regional one and will always be so, Shelin argues. But that means Moscow is engaging the broader world without the support it thinks it has or did in the Soviet past.

Both the United States and Germany are important regional powers, and the US is also a superpower, a role it can play more easily precisely because it is recognized as such by its neighbors who admire at least parts of its nature and seek to cooperate with it as a result. That is not the case with Russia’s neighbors.

For Russia to be a genuine regional hegemon, Shelin says, Russia needs not only economic and human ties but also “recognition or even respect” for its leading position. Russia today inspires “fear” among many of them at a level “higher than at any time in the last quarter century.”

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“But fear and respect are different things,” Shelin notes, and points to the various ways Russia’s neighbors have sought protection from Moscow by joining NATO or spending more on their militaries to be defend against a Russian attack. Even the five non-Russian states in the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty have “not in a single crisis situation shown themselves to be a collection of Russian allies.”

Consider Belarus, he says, “formally the closest and most dependent of all.” It is pursuing “an independent game and at present has the worst relations of all time. Conflicts with Kazakhstan hare hidden under the rug, but they are large and with the passage of time they aren’t going to go away.”

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Talk in Moscow about Russia being a regional or a superpower is a distraction given how far both of these things are from reality at the present time

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Only Tajikistan and Armenia where Russia has military bases and the unrecognized breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Osetia, Transdniestria, and DNR-LNR are “the real Russian outposts,” Shelin says, and only because of its military power.

As far as human contacts are concerned, they are weakening and will continue to do so. Ethnic Russians have left Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in such numbers as to change the ethnic balance in those countries significantly. The Russian language is being spoken by ever fewer people, especially among the young.

Only the gastarbeiters from the Caucasus and Central Asia represent a human link with Russia, he says. They are “an important factor but obviously insufficient to replace the others. And there are no others.” Nine of the 14 former Soviet republics — Shelin counts the occupied Baltic states in this way — no longer are integrated with Russia economically.

Most are moving away rapidly. Even Ukraine, thanks to Moscow’s policies, now is pursuing ties with others rather than with Russia, something that was unthinkable as few as three years ago. And in Central Asia, Russia is losing out to China, something that allows elites there much greater freedom of action.

Talk in Moscow about Russia being a regional or a superpower is a distraction given how far both of these things are from reality at the present time, Shelin argues. And such discussions have given rise to a false and dangerous notion that the Kremlin must choose between the one or the other.

In fact, he concludes, Russia “will not escape from stagnation until it concentrates on its [all-too] real domestic affairs” instead of running after either of these will of the wisps that it has no hope of catching.

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Paul Goble – political scientist and diplomat. He is an analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia.

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